Pop was coming down to Denver for a visit so I was at Argonaut Liquors stocking up on Tullamore Dew and Harp’s lager.
My dad, Rip Griffin Sr., is a retired Denver detective and lives in Copp City, Idaho, a de facto retirement community for pensioned police. Oddly, Copp City was named way before police claimed it for their own – it was first established as a rowdy mining town in the 1850s and later in the 1970s as a drug-fueled ski town – but now a fat blue line kept out the dealers and grifters so that the ex-cops could drink and watch satellite TV in peace.
I pulled into the passenger pick-up slot at Southwest Airlines at DIA and put my ‘65 Rambler into park just as Pop walked out of the automatic doors. He was wearing a rumpled brown suit and tie and had battered gray fedora clamped to his head. Now everyone knows where I get my fashion sense. As he walked over to the car, he looked at me and shook his head in mild disgust. He climbed in and simultaneously threw his valise onto the backseat and grabbed a cold Harp’s out of the cooler, which he popped open on the chrome trim of the dashboard.
“Why are you still driving this piece of shit?” Pop growled.
“It reminds me of you.”
“Fuck you, son.”
“No, because you gave it to me when I was in high school.”
“As a punishment for killing my Buick.”
“Never gonna let that go, are you?”
“It was the best car I ever drove. And you killed her.”
What happened was Pop let me use the Buick, a ‘71 Electra 225 convertible, better known as a “Deuce and a Quarter,” for a hot double date with a girl named Jackie and my best friend Charlie and his girl Pam. We went to the Cinderella Drive-in with a couple bottles of cherry vodka and a pint of Bacardi 151. Halfway through the first movie of a double feature Jackie tells us about her older sister and her friends drinking flaming shots of 151. Dumbasses that we were, we poured the 151 into plastic cups and set them aflame; 10 minutes later we stood with a hundred other people watching the manager of the drive-in douse the flames of the burning Buick with a fire extinguisher. Then a fire truck and numerous cops rolled up and they called Pop and my hot date had burned up in my face. Next time I called her, Jackie’s parents said she wasn’t allowed to date firebugs.
“Burned her alive is what you did.”
I put the Rambler in gear and pulled away from the curb. “So did you come down to Denver just to relive the good old days?”
He looked at me sideways and took a pull on his beer. “You remember Alex Wentzel?”
“His friends called him ‘Weasel’. He was one of those Freemen or whatever, like McVeigh and Nichols who did Oklahoma City. Domestic terrorists. We busted him selling machine guns and put him away for a forty-year stretch and now he’s up for parole and I need to testify at the hearing to make sure he don’t get out. These types tend to retaliate on the people that send them up. Plus he beat on his wife and kids, so there’s that.”
“He’s locked up in Sterling, I would guess?” I asked.
“Yep,” answered Pop. “You can either take me up there tomorrow or I could borrow your car if you don’t feel like going.”
“Oh, no, I can’t let you drive this piece of shit, it’s the best car I ever had,” I deadpanned.
“It’s the only car you’ve ever had,” Pop returned.
“Are you going to get me a beer,” I asked, “or do you just like drinking alone?”
Sterling is the largest town in northeast Colorado, around 14,000 people, and about two hours from Denver, just up I-76. As I neared the turn-off to Sterling I was wondering why so many Sheriff and State Patrol cars were flying around. Pop was snoring lightly as I turned off the highway. He woke up just as I pulled up to a State Patrol roadblock.
“What’s going on?” Pop asked me.
“We’ll find out, I guess,” I said as a trooper approached us. I rolled down my window.
The trooper bent down to look us over and checked out the backseat as he said, “There was a prison break this morning. The town is locked down. No admittance. Expect roadblock checkpoints if you’re headed back out on 76.”
Pop leaned across the seat.
“I’m a retired Denver detective. I was supposed to give testimony at a parole hearing today.”
“That’ll be canceled.”
“How many guys busted out?” Pop asked.
“I heard six. Better get moving.”
I turned the Rambler around and headed back to I-76.”I wonder how long I’ll have to wait around ‘til they have the hearing,” Pop said.
“Who knows?” I said. I switched on the AM dashboard radio and punched in a news station. The newscaster was in the middle of a report detailing the prison break: there were seven escapees, and he listed their names, the last name belonging to one Alex Wentzel.
“Holy fuck,” said Pop.
“I guess you don’t have to hang around for the hearing,” I said as I steered the Rambler south onto I-76.
We passed through one checkpoint as we drove south, and that took about an hour, and we were told to expect another somewhere down the line.
“I’m thirsty,” Pop said. There was a roadside tavern and burger joint called Smiley’s coming up so when it did I pulled in and parked next to a battered El Camino. Pop and I walked into the dim interior of Smiley’s and headed past the greasy tables for a couple of stools at the bar. There was one guy sitting at the bar and a skinny middle- aged female bartender fiddling with a remote for the smallish flat screen TV hanging in the corner.
“What’ll it be?” she croaked at us without taking her attention off the remote. The guy sitting at the bar had a sweaty cold bottle of Bohemia in front of him.
“A couple of those Bohemias would be just swell,” I said. “That beer looks good and cold,” I said to the guy. He was short and bald, but with a long gray ZZ Top beard. His clothes were mismatched like they were taken off a clothesline or out of a Goodwill bin.
“Uh-huh,” he answered.
“My son has had a long love affair with a beat-up old car,” Pop said to the guy, smiling. “That your El Camino out there?”
“Huh-uh,” the guy answered.
“It’s my husband’s,” said the bartender, still fiddling with the remote, “broke down yesterday.”
The guy lifted his bottle of Bohemia to his lips and took a pull. On the back of his hand was a tattoo of the U.S. flag in flames. Pop looked at me and frowned, then back at the guy, smiling at him once again.
“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose, ain’t it, Weasel?” said Pop as he picked up his bottle of Bohemia and shattered it against Alex Wentzel’s temple. The bartender screamed. Wentzel fell to the floor and Pop kicked him in his now bleeding skull and Wentzel was out cold.
“I’m callin’ the cops,” the bartender screeched.
“You took the words right out of my mouth,” Pop said as he took a couple of bar towels and began to bind Wentzel’s hands and feet.
After about a hundred cops showed up to haul Wentzel back to Sterling and interview Pop for a couple hours, we headed back to Denver. Pop said he needed to take some frozen chili back to Copp City so we got off I-25 at Sixth Avenue and went to the Brewery Bar II on Kalamath, Pop’s favorite green chili joint from back in his first days as a patrolman. We went in and ordered up a couple of Bohemia’s and shots of Casamigo Anejo and four quarts of frozen green chili. We toasted Wentzel’s bad fortune.
“That was a lot more fun than a parole hearing,” Pop said laughing.” I wouldn’t have recognized the asshead if not for that dumbass tattoo.
“Shit, piss, fuck, hell, damn,” said the guy on the barstool next to Pop, then let out a long, low whistle that sounded like the hoot of a drunken owl. He was a stout man with a head of thick white hair and a matching beard. He looked like a cross between Robin Williams and Santa Claus. He had a mug of beer and an empty shot glass in front of him.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“They got goddamn baseball onna TV. Fucking baseball. For Christ’s sake, the NFL draft is going on, and the goddamn NBA playoffs, and here we are watching the fucking Yankees. Shit, piss, fuck, hell, damn.” And another whistle.
“I goddamn agree,” I said to be sociable. “What’s your name, friend?”
“Joe Doily. And yours?”
“Rip Griffin. And this is my Pop, also named Rip.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance.” The bartender brought Joe another beer.
“Bobby,” Joe said to the bartender,” might I get some wee ones for me colleagues and me. And for yourself as well.”
Bob the bartender brought the Casamigo bottle and the Tullamore Dew for Joe Doily. We lifted our glasses as Joe gave a toast.
“Prost Vostrovia. 81 days ’til quarterbacks and receivers report to training camp.”
“Shit, piss, fuck, hell, damn,” I said and let out a long, low whistle.